Gifted Students Need a Personalized Approach to Education

By Derek Cavilla, Ed.D.

What Makes a Student Gifted?

In general, 2% of the population are considered gifted, most often measured by a score of 130 or above on a personal intelligence test, such as the WISC-V or Stanford Binet. However, while this may be the most common quantitative benchmark used for identification, there are many other factors that come into play, including: creativity, grit, leadership, or specific talent in the arts or music. Parents and teachers often become aware of a child’s potential giftedness through an elevated use of verbal language, high vocabulary, faster processing speed, emotional sensitivity, and/or a high sense of personal justice. These cognitive and social-emotional factors result in what is called asynchronous development, meaning that the child’s mental age exceeds his or her physical age. The more gifted the child, the greater the asynchrony.

The social-emotional aspect of giftedness often equals or exceeds the intellectual factors, especially in younger children. Issues such as perfectionism, struggles with authority, difficulty maintaining relationships with same-age peers, and struggles with motivation are often fueled by feelings of misunderstanding, boredom from rote or previously mastered curriculum, and frustration with a lack of context or application to the child’s own goals, passions, and interests.

“Why should I have to do math homework if I want to be a dancer?”

“Why should I have to do this assignment if I already know the material?”

“Why am I defined by grades instead of my effort and creativity?”

These are the many types of questions faced by parents and teachers of the gifted and they deserve to be answered. So many times, gifted children are frustrated, often to the point of emotional meltdown, due to either feeling unheard or not understanding why the rules either apply to them or are even “fair” in the first place. Again, the notion of asynchronous development means that we are dealing with young adults trapped inside the biological body of a child. It’s a tough combination that often makes gifted children feel ostracized and their parents frustrated.

For these reasons, raising a gifted child really does take a team, most often between the parents, the school, and some outside resources. Foremost, most parents don’t expect to have a gifted child — with only a one in 50 chance of being blessed with this, parents often require support in helping them to modify how they engage with their child and also to learn more about what it means to be gifted beyond the stereotypes of fact and award collecting. Teachers, who play an integral role in hundreds or even thousands of children’s lives over the course of their careers, often provide critical insight not only with helping to identify gifted children, but in sharing strategies that enhance their development both academically and social-emotionally. In some instances, if the gifted student also has a disability, resulting in twice-exceptionality, or is highly or profoundly gifted (IQ 145+ or 160+ respectively), additional members of the support team are likely needed, often including the child’s pediatrician, a school or personal psychologist, or even an educational consultant or advocate.

What Do Gifted Students Need to Be Successful?

Ideally, gifted students require three components to maximize their potential: a safe and flexible learning environment, proper academic rigor, and dual focus on social-emotional learning. Being asynchronous in development causes most gifted students to feel different from their peers, resulting in feelings from ostracism or stigmatization to negative self-image. Some gifted youngsters even shun their exceptional ability to try and “fit in” with their same-age peers socially or culturally, depending on the setting. To avert this, gifted students require teachers and parents to help them embrace and accept their ability and see it in a positive light. Properly trained teachers of the gifted create a safe learning environment where everyone’s skills are respected and celebrated, taking risks is encouraged, and learning from failure is viewed as a learning opportunity. In these settings, precocious students will learn to ask questions without fear of mockery or disdain. They will also learn to advocate for themselves when they would like to approach a project in a unique or creative way or when they are feeling frustrated with feelings of boredom or intense emotions. A positive learning environment also means that students’ voices matter and are heard. Rules are explained and adults help the gifted child process his or her feelings or questions about authority. Discourse replaces didactical commands where the adult is in charge and the student plays a subservient role. To thrive, gifted students must be allowed creative expression of their ideas and given the flexibility to learn in innovative ways that may be different from their same-age peers.

Once a student has embraced his or her ability, thus creating a positive self-image, they are ready for appropriate academic challenges that will motivate them to try their best and expand their knowledge. This doesn’t mean that elementary students should be memorizing pi to the fiftieth digit, reading 300 books over the summer, or taking college-level physics. Instead, teachers must use a combination of data from assessments and performance tasks, such as past grades or portfolios, and determine what level of rigor is appropriate for each subject. Other considerations include infusing appropriate levels of creativity and real-world problem-solving. To accomplish this, teachers of the gifted often employ one of the following curriculum practices:

• Acceleration: This means to skip over material that has been previously learned or is too easy. This can be done for a whole grade (i.e. moving from fourth grade to sixth grade) or by single-subject, such as a seventh-grader taking Algebra One or being put in a small group for reading where the level of text and questioning correlates with his or her reading level and verbal reasoning/processing skills.

• Compacting: This means to move through material quicker, generally using pre-tests to skip over previously mastered material, shortening assignments to only focus on areas the student actually needs to practice, or simply increasing the pacing of assignments and assessments to keep the student engaged, thus creating time for enrichment opportunities or continued learning beyond the core or grade-level curriculum.

• Project-Based Learning: This method involves having students apply their knowledge through hands-on creation of projects and artifacts that involve elevated levels of critical and creative thinking as well as focusing on solving real-world problems. This approach also works for assessments, often replacing multiple-choice tests or essays with the creation of models, videos, slide decks, or oral presentations as well as artistic renderings and interpretations. Ideally, project-based learning is interdisciplinary across multiple subjects, thus allowing students to apply their new knowledge across various domains while also connecting it to their past learnings, themselves, and the world in general.

While the academic aspects are crucial for gifted students’ ongoing cognitive development, the social-emotional side is equally, or sometimes even more, important to consider. The sheer nature of asynchronous development means that gifted children feel emotions more intensely than their same-age peers and grapple with feelings that are even tough for adults to understand, never mind to manage effectively. For this reason, it is critical for parents and teachers of gifted children to help them learn social-emotional skills, starting young with concepts such as respect, responsibility, and cooperation and then delving deeper into more advanced skills, such as empathy, divergent thinking, self-regulation, and grit as they age. Gifted children require direct instruction not only on what these skills are, but how to use them in their lives to help cope with the struggles of asynchronous development as well as create a synergistic relationship between their intellectual and emotional intelligence so that they can better reach their goals and overcome challenges. The most well-adjusted gifted students are those who fully understand their capabilities, can properly gauge their level of success, and have the social-emotional wherewithal to set appropriate goals, remain optimistic even in the face of failure or mishap, and not allow what they don’t yet know to prevent them from broadening their understanding of the world around them. Ultimately, if a gifted student is given the proper level of academic and social-emotional support within a safe and supportive learning environment, the world is their oyster — and this impacts not only them, but also the people and society that they will interact with in the future.

How Can Personalized, 1:1 Education Support Gifted Learners?

The very nature of 1:1 education facilitates an optimal learning environment for all students, not just the gifted. This is due to the teacher providing his or her sole focus on the learner without any distractions. Similarly, for the student, they are engaged in the whole lesson because there are no other diversions going on around them from other students. In a regular classroom, most teachers strive for 85% academic engaged time, but many times it is much less because teachers are managing the behaviors of 20+ students as well as constantly preparing materials and fielding questions from the class. With 1:1 education, the teacher and student are a unified team 100% of the time, learning what makes each side tick and developing a rapport and trust that naturally builds a safe and empowering learning environment. Moreover, 1:1 teachers are able to hone their focus on the specific needs of their student, whether that is giftedness, a learning difference, dyslexia, anxiety, or a combination of multiple factors. Without having to divide their attention during instruction, these personal teachers are able to customize a program that provides a foundation for success and ongoing opportunities for mastery learning and individualized support that far exceeds what most students are used to in a standard classroom setting. Essentially, with 1:1 education, a team that usually comprises the teacher, school counselor, and instructional aide is combined into one professional who is able to manage and adapt to the student’s needs in real-time.

However, delivery of instruction is only part of the equation — the curriculum itself is equally as important. While personalized education is still based on state and grade-level standards, teachers in a 1:1 format are given significant latitude to enrich the curriculum based on their students’ ability and interests, a huge advantage for gifted students. Rather than reading the same book as everyone else in a class, the individualized learner has input into the types of genres he or she prefers to read, has questions tailored to his or her ability level, and are allowed to show their learning through various alternative or performance assessments through project-based learning. Similarly, a student in 1:1 education can easily accelerate by whole grade or single subject, especially in math. Whereas in larger school settings it isn’t always feasible, or allowed, for younger students to attend advanced courses such as Algebra or Geometry, this is entirely possible with customized education as long as the student’s data and past performance support it. Compacting is also encouraged and allows 1:1 instructors the advantage to teach their gifted students deeper through enrichment projects and advanced academic curriculum. Using Vygotsky’s Zone of Proximal Development theory, teachers of the gifted constantly adjust the pacing and rigor of their content to ensure that their students are neither bored with repetitive busywork nor frustrated with trying to understand material that is too advanced and not age-appropriate. Essentially, the Zone of Proximal Development is the “Goldilocks” zone where students are able to combine their prior learning with the guidance of the teacher to build deeper and deeper understanding and connections across topics. Without the stress of both teaching to the middle and running small groups to help both struggling and advanced students, teachers with only one student can truly focus their talent and support on the individual learner, thus maximizing his or her success while simultaneously increasing intrinsic motivation through engagement and alignment with the student’s personal goals and ability.

Lastly, given the highly individualized nature of 1:1 education, the teacher serves not only as a steward of knowledge but as a mentor as well. While social-emotional learning may be relegated to monthly lessons on character in larger schools, it plays an equal counterpart in developing custom programs for students in a 1:1 setting. For gifted students, who ironically often underestimate their own ability, this is critical to grow their self-efficacy. The synergy of a safe and supportive learning environment coupled with curriculum that is appropriately differentiated to the gifted student’s ability level and personal interests allows the 1:1 teacher to promote risk-taking, perspective taking, academic curiosity, tolerance of ambiguity, acceptance of failure, and discovery of harmonious passions — all incredibly important social-emotional skills that help gifted learners increase their emotional intelligence alongside their academic acumen. This teacher-mentor relationship allows the instructor to push the student just far out of his or her comfort zone to extend their knowledge in a risk-free environment that celebrates questions and failure just as much as correct answers and deep insight. Students who trust their teacher and feel understood at the core level are able to truly shine, often surprising others with the depth and breadth not just of their knowledge, but of their compassion, leadership potential, and creativity. For all of these reasons and more, personalized 1:1 education truly is a match made for gifted learners and those who want to help mold society by guiding them along the way.

About the Author


Campus Director of Futures Academy Walnut Creek

I pursued my education at the University of Central Florida, where I earned a Doctor of Education with a specialization in gifted education, a Master of Education in Teacher Leadership, and a Bachelor of Science in Elementary Education. My areas of research include how to maximize student success through the infusion of social-emotional learning, which includes helping students learn skills such as empathy, self-regulation, curiosity, and harmonious passion in the everyday classroom setting. My expertise also includes how to better identify and support both underachieving and dual-exceptional students, such as those who are both gifted and learning disabled or who are both gifted and on the Autism Spectrum Disorder.

I entered the field of education in order to make a positive impact on society. I have touched the lives of thousands of students from kindergarten to the graduate level having held various roles including: fifth-grade teacher, high school English teacher, university professor as well as a school-based administrator in both public charter and private schools in Florida and California.

Prior to entering the field of education, I ran a graphic design business for over a decade. When not busy helping shape today’s youth and their teachers, I enjoy traveling the globe to new and exciting places, flying around the Bay Area in my single-engine plane, and exploring culinary delights in my home city of San Francisco.